The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

(Featured Image: Cover of The Rebels, 1980; © Warner Bros.)

Note: Just in case there is any confusion, the below is entirely made up, albeit with perhaps an excess of dedication to historical plausibility. See my previous “Alternate Timeline” post on For You for a better explanation of the concept. And have fun!

The late 1970s and early 1980s punk scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul played host to a number of noteworthy groups: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Suburbs. But none were as eclectic, or as underrated, as the multi-racial, gender- and genre-bending act known as the Rebels. A far cry from a conventional “punk” band, the Rebels were a motley crew of disaffected Northside funksters, suburban bar-band escapees, and even a few seasoned pros, whose wild live performances made them the first group from the Twin Cities underground to be signed by a major label. Their self-titled 1980 debut for Warner Bros. was both critically acclaimed and hugely influential for a generation of genre-agnostic musical provocateurs, but internal tensions kept them from fulfilling their full potential. Still, almost four decades later, the mark of the Rebels remains evident across the contemporary pop landscape, from alternative rock to electronic music and hip-hop.

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Hard to Get

Hard to Get

(Featured Image: The “Spandex kids” backstage at the Roxy Theatre, November 26, 1979. Back row, L to R: Tim Devine, Warner Bros. product manager; Lou Wills, West Coast promotion/Black music marketing; Cortez Thompson, national promotion director/Black music marketing; J.J. Johnson, KDAY Los Angeles radio; Bobby Z. Middle row, L to R: singer Randy Crawford, Prince, Mo Ostin, Matt Fink, Gayle Chapman. Bottom row, L to R: André Cymone and the disembodied head of Dez Dickerson.)

By August of 1979, with a new management team, a second album of material, and untold hours of rehearsal under their belts, Prince and his band were ready for a second chance at live performance. Rather than scheduling another tryout date in Minneapolis, however, Warner Bros. staged a pair of private showcases for label reps and media at Leeds Instrument Rentals in Los Angeles. This time, drummer Bobby Z told biographer Per Nilsen, the band was “a hundred times tighter and Prince was a hundred times more confident.” “His aura was just incredible,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing exec in W.B.’s “Black Music” division, told Nilsen. “I walked out of there feeling I could move mountains for this… I think most Warner Bros. people walked out of there feeling they had encountered something very special” (Nilsen 1999 59).

Along with the increased confidence and polish came a whole new look for the group. The ramshackle, aesthetically mismatched crew from the Capri Theatre in January had “morphed into the Spandex kids,” guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We were trying to dress as outrageously and outlandishly as we could” (Star Tribune 2004). Their new, cohesive image–glam rock meets porn chic–was calculated and deliberate; early in her tenure with the band, keyboardist Gayle Chapman remembered coming to Prince’s house and seeing him “videoing a woman modeling in a leather jacket with her breasts hanging out. He was working out how things came across on screen and starting to blur the line between his reality and his fantasy” (Azhar 14). This transformation was further reflected in the music, with a much heavier emphasis on the “rock” side of Prince’s funk-rock equation.

The missing link, for both approach and execution, was a 12-day, full-band recording session in July 1979 at Mountain Ears Sound Studios in Boulder, Colorado. It’s unclear exactly what Prince intended to accomplish with the project, which circulates under the name “the Rebels.” Curiously, Jay Marciano, the Colorado concert promoter who recommended the studio, recalled the idea originating with one of Prince’s handlers, Perry Jones: “Perry wanted to pull more rock-oriented music out of him,” Marciano told Nilsen, and “wanted to get Prince away from Warner’s influence. He said, ‘I need to find a place that will give me some studio time and then, if it is any good, I’ll take the tapes to WB and get them to pay for the sessions” (Nilsen 1999 58). But Prince had been toying with the idea of cutting a side record with his backing musicians for almost as long as he’d had backing musicians in the first place. I really like working with this band,” he told Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader soon after their Capri Theatre debut, “and I’m gonna do an album with them where everyone writes and I’m just there playing with them” (Keller 1979). 

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Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

(Featured Image: Prince and André Cymone, 1980; photo by James Tarver, stolen from prince.org.)

Like its predecessor, Prince’s second album was recorded almost entirely solo, with the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist also serving as his own producer. Also like the first album, however, the self-aggrandizing liner note credit “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince” was a slight exaggeration. Just as he had on the For You sessions, Prince’s bassist and longtime musical partner André Cymone accompanied him to California–along with his second most veteran bandmate, drummer Bobby Z. And while their full contributions to the album are unclear–they’re listed in the liner notes as “Heaven-sent Helpers,” whatever that means–it does seem that André played a significant role in shaping one song in particular: the second track–and, in early 1980, second single–“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

Years later, after André had left the band and revealed his contributions to this and other Prince songs, his old friend did give him some credit–albeit with his usual mix of deflection and pique. “He sang a small harmony part that you really couldn’t hear,” Prince explained to Rolling Stone’s Neal Karlen, but a “typo” kept him from receiving any credit. “I tried to explain that to him, but when you’re on the way up, there’s no explaining too much of anything. People will think what they want to” (Karlen 1985). Charles Smith, Prince’s and André’s former Grand Central bandmate, offered an alternative explanation: “Prince started shaping the second album when he moved to the house on France Avenue,” he told biographer Per Nilsen. “I watched Prince and André do the work for the album, ‘Bambi,’ ‘Still Waiting,’ and all that stuff. André came up with the end of ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?’ and a lot of the bass lines were André’s” (Nilsen 1999 54-55).

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After 4Ever: Why We’re Still Waiting for a Definitive Prince Compilation

After 4Ever: Why We’re Still Waiting for a Definitive Prince Compilation

(Featured Image: Prince by Herb Ritts, from the 4Ever booklet; © NPG Records/Warner Bros.)

I know I wrote a lot about “Moonbeam Levels” earlier this week, but it turns out I had a lot more to say about Prince 4Ever (you’ve probably noticed, I always have a lot to say). So here’s a rundown of Prince’s compilations from 1993 to 2016, what each gets right, and why even now, we still need a truly definitive set. Check it out at Andresmusictalk below:

After 4Ever: Why We’re Still Waiting for a Definitive Prince Compilation

Next week, it’s back to the post-For You grind with a couple of light, but pleasant outtakes from mid-1978. See you then!